Why “World Rights, One Cover” Is Not the Best Idea

In Guest Contributors by Guest Contributor

There’s been a lot of talk about the end of territorial rights, but experience suggests that wouldn’t be a good thing for authors or books.

By Ginger Clark, Agent, Curtis Brown Ltd.

Literary agent Ginger Clark

Ginger Clark

There has been a lot of discussion lately about territorial rights to books, and whether they are going to become irrelevant in the future of our business. I have read several pieces online about how the future of publishing will involve global deals, global e-rights, and one cover for everyone. At Publishers Launch London last week Richard Charkin, executive director of Bloomsbury, said that he felt territorial restrictions based on countries is “obsolete,” and that Bloomsbury was moving towards buying World English rights in all cases when possible.

(Charkin did say, as well, that “there is nothing wrong with territorial rights and we’ll fight to protect those we have.”)

As someone who does part of her job in rights work, this discussion is very relevant to me. I handle British Commonwealth rights to the children’s list here at Curtis Brown, and I have done deals in both the United Kingdom and ANZ (Australia/New Zealand) markets. I have also negotiated deals for just Canadian rights with Canadian houses. So I’m going to take a different position from those advocating for world rights and world rights only: that for a book to be published successfully in the largest English language territories, it needs to be sold direct (rather than having one edition sent out worldwide).

Now, the idea of selling all territorial rights to a publisher is a good one in some cases. Sometimes, an offer is made that is so high that it makes sense to sell British and translation rights. Sometimes, a publisher has a strong presence in all the major English language markets, and it makes sense to sell World English. Sometimes, you have no other interest in a book except from one publisher; the publisher refuses to offer for anything but World; and your client really wants to have his book published. So you grant the publisher World Rights, much to your chagrin, and smile through clenched teeth.

But in other cases (and I would argue that in a majority of cases), the author benefits much more if they have a publisher on the ground in that country, doing their own homegrown promotion and creating a market-appropriate cover.

I’m going to use one title here to illustrate what I mean. It’s called Unearthly by Cynthia Hand and it is represented by my colleague Katherine Fausset. It’s the first in a trilogy in the “young adult” age bracket, and it sits in the paranormal subgenre, which has been extremely lucrative for some years now.

Harper Teen bought Unearthly and its two sequels in late 2009, buying North American (United States, Canada and the Philippines) and translation rights. Katherine held back British Commonwealth, much to my delight. I love this series: it has a a fantastic heroine  — Clara — and there’s a real equilateral love triangle in this. (Though I remain firmly on Team Tucker — Team Tucker is a very large team, I might add).

American cover design for Unearthly

The American cover of Unearthly

After Cynthia turned in the first draft of the book, Harper Teen came up with a cover (at right) which is fresh, and smart — and don’t you want that dress? I love the feather, too.

Cynthia delivered a fantastic final draft of the book to Katherine the day after I got back from Bologna. I sent it out as soon as I could — right around Easter (appropriate, as one British editor told me, considering it’s a book about angels). Then we sat back and waited for people to read it.

A few weeks later, we had sufficient interest from the other side of the world, and we set an auction date for Australia/New Zealand rights. The auction started at 8 p.m. my time. (Australian auctions usually mean late nights for me, and for Unearthly I was up very late.) Harper Australia won. Shortly there after, they came up with their cover — one just as beautiful at Harper US’s cover, but in a different way.

(At no point during the plot does Clara wear a ball gown. I know. A lot of covers are like this. Did I mention there are two really sweet, genuinely adorable boys in it? Focus on that!)

Australian book cover of Unearthly

The Australian Cover of Unearthly

Harper Australia did a fantastic job with the cover and the entire package — you can’t tell from a photo but there is some intricate matte texturing on the book. They’ve worked closely with Harper US, and Cynthia has done interviews and outreach with her new Australian fans.

In October 2010, after having had an offer fall through from a British publisher over territory issues, we had another offer for British rights — this time, from Egmont UK. Egmont UK had actually passed on the book earlier, but their thoughts regarding angel books had changed in the months since they had. I mentioned the book to them when I met them at their offices in London in September 2010, with my client Elizabeth Wein (whose book, Code Name Verity I have also sold in three territories — US, Canada, and Britain).

UK book cover of Unearthly

The UK cover of Unearthly

Egmont offered shortly after the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2010. And a couple of months later, we had a UK cover (at right).

Again, another gorgeous image, but different from the previous two covers.

There’s a pattern, isn’t there? Teenage girl in an eye-catching dress, standing in the woods, looking pensive and powerful. It’s almost the same cover, someone might think, just with different color schemes.

But each time, it’s a different girl. Different hair color. Different dress. Different woods. Different angle of profile. Different sense of what the girl is thinking and feeling. Harper Australia and Egmont did not design their covers in a vacuum. They each saw the US cover first, before designing their own. And since Egmont bought it after Harper Australia, Egmont saw both the other two covers before designing their own. So that explains the shared elements.

The differences are subtle, and it can be difficult to articulate their regional significance. This is precisely why it is so important to have a local publisher who knows that the Australian cover is best suited for Australia. The British cover is incredibly British. The American is the right one for North America. I’m not sure that Australian cover would work in the UK. And I don’t think the British cover would work here or in Canada.

I want to point out that Harper US held translation rights and have done a great job selling them to places like Germany, Portugal, Spain, Poland, Taiwan, Turkey, Croatia, Brazil, Hungary, Lithuania, Denmark, and in French for Canadian distribution (yes, one can do deals for just French Canadian rights). Of course, the author receives less money when the publisher controls the translation rights (the publisher keeps a share) but the Harper US rights department has done very well with this book.

My job has been to coordinate with Harper Australia and Egmont regarding covers, publicity, getting them in touch with the right people at Harper US about production files, and, of course, negotiating the deals, the contracts, and all the paperwork involved. I’ve met with both houses before and after the deals (you really cannot reproduce over email or the phone the relationship building of in person meetings in this business). I’ve sent cover quotes, and promotional news, and reviews. I’ve gotten to pass along the great news of Cynthia giving birth to her second child earlier this year.

If the American publisher had controlled World English rights, perhaps they would have sold rights to Harper UK and/or Harper Australia, or even other, non-News Corp companies in both markets. Or they might just have shipped their own edition of the book to bookstores around the world, with the American cover, without any promotion.

I still believe that splitting up rights is often the right decision for a book and an author. You need a sales force on the ground, enthusiastic about the book. You need the market to have its own cover. You need a publicist working in that country, as Harper Australia and Egmont have done for Unearthly.

You have to know the market; you have to have someone advocating for you; and you need a publishing house on the ground looking after your book. Not just an office with one guy distributing the American edition — an actual, staffed publishing house with sales and marketing, publicity, and editors.

Three different covers. Three different markets. One title.

This is why you cannot have one cover on a book and expect it to sell well everywhere in the English language, and other languages. And this is YA paranormal, a particular field that is selling phenomenally well.

For Elizabeth Wein’s book, Code Name Verity (which is out next year), we’re beginning to look over covers for each market. The American cover came first, and I passed it to the Brits, who said, “it’s interesting, and we like it, but it’s not right for our market.”

Sometimes, it’s one cover fits all. A lot of the time, though, it’s not.

DISCUSS: Can Unified Global Book Marketing Campaigns Work?

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